One of the most important bishops of Rome and most influential writers of the Middle Ages, Gregory the First is one of only two popes (the other being Leo the First), to have been given the epithet “the Great.”
Indeed! But his greatest significance to Anglicans is his role as “the Apostle to the English,” for his zealous concern for their conversion to Christianity, culminating in his sending of the monk Augustine (who would become known as St. Augustine of Canterbury, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, having received the pallium from Gregory himself) as a missisonary / evangelist, with his companions.
It is said that Pope Gregory was inspired to his concern for the Anglo-Saxon people of England by encountering a group of English children or youth on sale as slaves in the Roman market around the year 573. He is said to have remarked on their beauty as being like that of angels, whereupon he was told that they were in fact Angles – causing him to say, Non Angli, sed angeli: “Not Angles, but angels.”
He originally planned to go to England himself, but when he was instead elected Pope, decided to send Augustine in 597 AD. And the rest is, as they say, history…
One of Gregory’s most notable achievements was the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. He personally took the lead in the whole process, sending Augustine, prior of his own monastery of Saint Andrew’s on the Caelian Hill, and a number of fellow monks to southeastern Britain, to the Jutish kingdom of Kent, where they achieved within a few years the conversion of the people and of their king, Ethelbert. Gregory continue personally to guide the mission in matters that perplexed Augustine by sending a supporting group of missionaries, along with liturgical vessels, books, and vestments, in 601; and by writing to Ethelbert and his Christian queen, Bertha on various matters. The close relationship between Rome and the English Church was continued by Gregory’s successors, and in many ways the Church in England was closer to the papacy than the Church in Gaul was. The first Life of Gregory was written in England, and from the biographies written by the Venerable Bede, Aldhelm, and the anonymous biographer of Whitby come eulogies of Gregory as “the apostle of the English”, “our father and apostle in Christ”, and “he from who we have received the Christian faith, he who will present the English people to the Lord on the Day of Judgment as their teacher and apostle.”
Indeed, we have St. Gregory the Great to thank for the very existence of the Ecclesia Anglicana (Anglican, or English, Church)!